The dead among usTara sits quietly as the men walk on without noticing her. The smell of kerosene stuns her nose; it reminds her of her father.
“I’ll see you again,” Tara says, stepping down from the Peepal tree. She’s here to meet her friends. They have been living in the Peepal tree for quite some time now. In its ancient roots, this orphan tribe has found its home.
“And don’t cause any trouble,” Tara warns, as she gets ready to leave. She’s not come of age yet, but everyone listens to her.
Today, she bids her friends goodbye and leaves. On other days, when they’re sad, she sleeps over.
She walks down the lonely read head-down. The inky sky is as dark as black asymmetrical coat. There’s a distant rumbling in the skies, and the moon is nowhere to be seen.
Tara rushes home, hands tucked in her sweater, her hair flying. A home where no visitors ever come, and where her elder sister Lila is anxiously waiting for her.
The path to her home is rather treacherous. If she takes the path that’s on the right of the temple, the walk is uphill. And the downhill path, on the left of the temple, goes past a cave, and is difficult to walk across; but with no people around, she’s confident the trees won’t eat her.
“Walk like the wind,” her mother would say when alive. So the earth doesn’t feel her and twigs do not break when she walks on them. Other than the loose soil registering her faint footmarks, there’s little to trace her steps. Tara has mastered the craft of walking.
One. Two. Three. Four. She counts on as she goes.
Five. Six. Hiss. Hiss.
“Stop!” she says to herself.
Hisss. HISSSSS. The sound runs towards her longer and louder.
Few babbling men approach with fire torches who could well place her at peril. She sneaks behind a tree.
“Padam's daughter Shanti a year ago and now Chetan," says the first man.
“The tree is eating our children," says the second.
“Every year. It’s a price we pay. If only we’d heeded the warnings from the Baba,” says the third.
“Tomorrow. They’re burning it down. Devi Mata is furious because of that tree nearby.”
“But what will happen to those…,” the youngest asks but is butted in.
“If they resist, we’ll scare them away,” says the man with the torch. There’s a faint tremble in his voice.
Tara sits quietly as the men walk on without noticing her. A reek of kerosene stuns her nose; it reminds of her father. Vicious memories abound. But she's rather worried what's about to happen. The tree has always been home to special children in the village—children who don’t go to school, have no responsibilities and no future.
A long breath in and out.
She gets back on the path home. Then, out of nowhere, she sees her home—a hut at the bed of the roots of a Bar-Peepal forest. She enters.
Lila is busy with house chores. When she sees Tara return, her eyes are gentle.
Tara doesn’t utter a word. Lila senses something troubles her sister.
“What is it?" Lila asks.
“As if you care,” Tara replies, as she makes bed. Tara barely sleeps though. In bed, she hugs the covers tightly, chest deep into the bed and clothes half worn, hairs all over and no face, which veils her blood-red eyes.
An empty bowl falls off the shelf.
“Are we doing this again?” Lila says.
“I know you’re upset,” she adds. “But it’s been eons, Tara. You’ve to let it go."
“It’s not that.”
“What is it then?”
“They're taking the tree down."
"What? Were you near the tree again? I've told you to stay away from that tree."
Another empty bowl falls. More bowls.
“Stop doing that, will you?" Lila shouts.
Tara’s eyes reddens. One can tell it’s not the reflection of the fireplace because there’s no fireplace.
"Stop being stubborn Tara. I'm fed up with those tricks."
“Lila, they’re burning down the tree!” Tara says. “The Peepal tree. Our home. We’ve been there for years. We've played and slept and absorbed it. After Chetan came over to our side, the villagers have gone awry."
Lila lets out an exasperated sigh.
“That is not your home. This is. I’m tired of having to go through this argument daily. Let them burn the tree. I don't care. Do you expect otherwise from those people?" Lila says.
“You never cared, did you? If you remember, we used to be those people once. How can they burn the place where one of their own lives?" Tara resists.
“I’m not talking on this subject anymore. Ask everyone—your friends—to stay away."
“The place is our home, sister. We have been living there for years. They have no right to do that."
Lila says nothing.
“The dead don't have a home, kid. And definitely not rights," Lila says.
“So what if we’re dead. We’re spirits. They used to worship us.”
“Spirits? You know what they call us? Ghosts. That’s what you are. That’s all we are now. If the villagers are going to burn the tree, and if your friends stay there, they’ll be trapped forever.”
Tara is silent. She can’t sleep over what is to happen.
Outside, it has started to rain. The rainwater pitter-patters on the roof of their small hut. A few drops make it through the open window and land on her face. Their primal contact makes her body hair want to fly. She can’t wait for tomorrow. Today is the day she should act.